Topic: Music business

The excessive use of superlatives and exaggerations online

I’m increasingly noticing a trend where advertisers, posters, promoters and artists are engaging in excessive use of superlatives and exaggerations online

A superlative has been described as  

“The form of an adjective or adverb that expresses that the thing or person being described has more of the particular quality than anything or anyone else of the same type”

In communications the adjective is listed first, followed by the comparative adjective and then the superlative adjective:

Big – bigger – biggest.
Brave – braver – bravest.
Bright – brighter – brightest.

Of course with The Advertising Standards Authority advertisers can be held to account for deliberately misleading the public with claims.  CAP advice in relating to ASA is

“Superlative claims may be either fully superlative, for example, “Superior Cleaning Compared To An Ordinary Toothbrush” (Colgate-Palmolive, 18 July 2001) and “Greater cleaning efficiency” (Argos Ltd, 21 April 2004) or top-parity claims, for example, “Nothing washes whiter than X”. Either way, marketers will be expected to substantiate the truthfulness and accuracy of a superlative claim and will need to hold documentary evidence”

Donald Trump

Of course some misleading claims are easy to  spot when people makes claims about “size”. The most recent USA presidential inauguration  claim is a great example of this and the USA president continues to use exaggerations and superlatives on an almost daily basis on Twitter. As The Washington Times noted

“Nothing is ever merely “good,” or “fortunate.” No appointment is merely “outstanding.” Everything is “fantastic,” or “terrific,” and every man or woman he appoints to a government position, even if just two shades above mediocre, is “tremendous.” The Donald never met a superlative he didn’t like, himself as the ultimate superlative most of all”

Exaggerations online 

On social media in particular there seems an increasing tendency to use terms like “awesome” and “unique” There’s of course nothing wrong with such terms and some experiences can indeed be awesome and unique, BUT when almost everything is described in this way the effect is to dilute l impact for the reader. This dilution effect is even more when the terms are used repeatedly in the same paragraph of copy. In my experience this can happen for a number of reasons.

Sometimes the person writing copy or posting has a limited favorite vocabulary and doesn’t fully appreciate the effect of repeatedly posting the same terms. In other instances the individual is so excited in what they are describing they forget to think about how its being perceived by a third party. 

The changing face of marketing and less is often more

The world of marketing is changing at some rate. Traditional exaggerated claims are increasingly viewed with caution by customers and of course social media feedback has led to a new form of scrutiny. Similarly claims that suggest massive priced drops like “Normal price is X, but now the price is Y (huge discount) and “Last few items available!” often don’t have the same impact as in days gone by. My own view is that businesses need to be more transparent in their dealings and increasingly focus on what they have to offer is genuinely unique.  Some businesses adopt a scatter gun approach to marketing, so customers become overwhelmed with choice. This is also not especially wise as it also dilutes effect. Often the person writing copy is far too hyperactive and tries to be all things to all people. More often than not they lose customer confidence by this approach and would do far better by pacing how they market and focus more specifically on USPs. 

Professionals v Hobbyists by Nick Cody

“I recommend my students not to be professional unless they really have to be. I tell them, ‘If you love music, sell Hoovers or be a plumber. Do something useful with your life.’

Robert Fripp

 

Let me firstly clarify what I mean by “professional musicians” and “hobbyists”

A professional of any sort supports themselves financially from their craft. A hobbyist is someone who may play music, but their primary income is derived from other means, even though they may generate some income from musical activities.

The Oxford dictionary definition is 

“Engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than as an amateur”

I would not class myself as a professional musician in this respect and have absolutely no intentions of ever being one either.  I am however a professional trainer and consultant with global reach which also allows me to  fund musical activities and create musical platforms I believe in.  I know many seasoned professionals with decades of experience and I know how hard they work. I also know how there’s usually a massive commercial pressure to deliver on the record company’s investment. I’d never personally wish to be in that situation, but I am grateful that others go down that path.

The Playing for exposure issue and other constraints

Recently there have once again been numerous conversations online about artists playing “for exposure” also known as play for free. Many of these are hobbyists and I am increasingly hearing that this presents all manner of problems for professional musicians. Of course, this is all about balance and there is IMO a place for both, but from what I hear this trend can lead to professionals being edged out by hobbyists as promoters see this as a cheaper financial option. This all depends on context and promoters need to attract customers, so artists with a following will always be an attractive proposition.

The problem is often that the professional artists are the ones that suffer as promoters reduce fees. This is certainly the case with niche music festivals where promoters have application forms asking what performers want for a fee which although can be seen to be reasonable on one level, has been seen by many as reducing earnings as many hobbyists will play for free and even pay their own expenses to try to “get exposure”.

Another problem is that for the hobbyist their day job which pays the bills will need to take priority over other pursuits. This can mean that if their professional work beckons they may have to cancel a gig at the last moment, so both promoter and the audience is left hanging. Similarly, a hobbyist will often struggle to play more than 20 miles away from home, whereas professionals will be used to travelling hundreds of miles as that’s the work that pays the mortgage! The result can then be that locally the audiences only see the exact same artists month in month out…

The Trades in Business

Its useful to remember that in any good business relationship there is a trade that is equally beneficial to both parties involved. The “trade” is not always measured in financial terms. Some new artists genuinely benefit from getting audience exposure and in their early days are not usually going to be in a position to demand a good fee. 

As someone with a background in business, a lot of what I see in “the music business” makes little sense to me and both performers and promoters can find themselves in an endless cycle where the benefits are increasingly diminished, and the quality of the music suffers. Social media is extremely important in promoting artist interest, BUT can also create a really distorted view as well. Many artists who post an event on FB where X number of “friends” commit online to attending, often find that the real-life figure is significantly less. Understandably many individuals are also looking at new models to promote music and I applaud such initiatives, BUT any new label that makes statements such as “the directors do not take any salary from this business” should IMO be viewed with some caution. The sentiment is admirable but any long-term business success means balancing time and money.

The Importance of multiple income streams 

Professionals appreciate the importance of predictable income and all the professional artists I know have multiple income streams that often include teaching 1 – 1, running workshops, selling merchandise, playing gigs and festivals as well as selling digital and physical products.  Even though there is a reassurance in vinyl sales any artist would be extremely foolish to avoid digital distribution for their music in this day and age. Of course its always a balancing act and for many artists merchandise sales are more profitable that musical products. I remember in 1990’s talking to my good friend Tim Booth lead singer from James about this exact issue. The band made sizable income from their T Shirts, far more than from their record deal. Tim’s been in “the music business” for over three decades and I massively admire his dedication to making music as well as being in awe of his work rate.

Balancing Time and Money – music promotions

In niche music circles I see all manner of fundamental mistakes made in marketing and promotions and I have stopped giving well intentioned advice from my own business background! The key mistakes are lack of proper pacing in advertising and ill-considered pricing. This has resulted in many festivals closing because the key ingredients of balancing time and money have not been properly addressed. This is understandable as in niche circles many promoters are running events as a hobby and it’s not a full time professional job. This is in no way intended as a negative comment but simply an observation. I pointed this out in an article earlier in the year, which provoked fury from many hardcore enthusiasts and then exactly as predicted a longstanding festival suddenly threw in the towel commenting in the press

“We’ve never been in this to make money – it’s not a business, it’s a club”

I totally admire the sentiment, BUT unless you balance time and money, most ventures will fail unless you have a wealthy benefactor. Any event where the promoter has a budget of tens of thousands of pounds, in my view would be wise to consider running an event as being a business venture with careful attention to balancing time and money. This is my personal opinion which comes from having to deliver in a business context. I also have no problems with folks who treat such promotions as a part time hobby, but there can be quite severe consequences if you can’t balance the books.

So, before I receive another mass firing of arrows in my direction, let me be clear that I 100% applaud anyone who seeks to promote the arts, but a few tweaks would IMO make for a much better end result. Another niche festival due to go live early 2018 had not done any updates to their main website which in my view is missing a trick, especially as there is clear interest on social media for more up to date news on the event. This is all basic business sense and of course often business success is about paying attention to such crucial details. All of this is 100% my opinion of course and I welcome other different viewpoints. There’s no right or wrong, just different outcomes. My own view is that events and festivals have a better chance of success if there’s good attention to balancing the books. Similarly with artists balancing time and money will make for a greater chance of audience reach, although this is increasingly a tough task and I admire anyone going this route.

In my view professionals and hobbyists are equally important, but serve different functions and its useful to think of them in this respect. 

Your ideal set length at a music festival?

I have been doing some research into audience expectations for attending music festivals and live events. 

Let me start by saying that I have a personal preference for 30 min+ set lengths as I think this gives the best opportunity for artists to express themselves and audiences to experience the artist’s performance. That said that’s just my opinion and of course others may well disagree insisting in far less time or advocating more performance time.  I wrote this article after some polling as  I was interested to see what others thought and to look at different options, while keeping an open mind.  Every possible option will have pros and cons and of course the audience members, the artists and the hosts all have different expectations that include commercial considerations.

Too short? Too Long? You’ll never please EVERYBODY!

One of the challenges in running a successful event is to meet and hopefully exceed audience and sponsor expectations. Unless you have a wealthy benefactor you will need a viable income stream to be able to run such an event. Sometimes hosts can fail to do proper research on audience expectations and decide ahead of time what they believe the audience wants.

They may of course be 100% right, or they may I suspect actually unintentionally be quite myopic in their thinking.  Set list lengths are one key factor in providing great entertainment and attracting a viable audience. Of course its not the only factor!

EVERYBODY has an opinion and some can be very vocal and even quite defensive in discussing such matters rather than looking at the BIGGER picture, which includes canvassing for feedback as expectations can change.

Online some people can be very vocal and passionate about insisting what “should be” Its a bit like football clubs, everybody has a favorite and somethings people can get pretty worked up talking about such matters

I was amused when I read a post online where the person insisted

“Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise…  festival X is the best festival”

He completely missed the wonderful irony in making this statement where he was telling people what they “should do” so he might have been better saying

“Don’t let anyone, except MYSELF tell you otherwise, festival X is the best festival”

I appreciate the enthusiasm but its another example of polarized thinking and not keeping an open mind. Of course “best” is entirely subjective and one person’s “best” may be another’s nightmare of an experience. You’ll never please everybody.

Online poll results on this subject

I ran a series of online polls on FB on my own FB page as well as on a number of ukulele and niche music groups. The poll offered three simple options asking what people as audience members would find most attractive in deciding to attend a festival.

  1. A performer set of 20 or less
  2. A set of 30 minutes or more
  3. A set of 40 – 45 minutes or more

The results were as follow

  • 30 minutes minimum or more – 61%
  • 40 – 45 minutes – 28%
  • 20 minutes or less – 11%

The feedback from everyone is almost universally for 30 minutes or more and it was not even close as a contest. I had expected a much closer margin.

Personal Experience

My own 100% biased personal preference is that 30 minutes is a good minimum set length and 20 min or even less is too limiting, assuming the artist is gig experienced.

Set list times of 20 min or less, this doesn’t allow much time for the audience to interact with the audience and there’s little time to play more than just a few tracks. Also for the sound technician, changing artists every 20 minutes can be a nightmare! Of course I have experienced 20 min sets that felt like hours and 40 min sets that felt like minutes. Ultimately people will vote with their feet about what they like best. 

Extremely short sets create all manner of challenges. On one niche festival when running a stage, I had to sequence 7 different acts each playing  strict 20 minute set lists, all with different equipment. With just five minute turn around’s there’s very little margin for error and in my opinion the whole format was far too hyperactive. Its even more complicated when there are bands with multiple performers and/or performers with different technical set ups that involve multiple pedal options!

With my band The Small Change Diaries, the longest set we have played is two 45 minutes at The Wetherby Arts Festival. At the Lagoa Guitar Festival in Portugal, we played a 45 minute set which was very well received. We have also played 20 minute sets at niche festivals which were a very different experience and not one that we would now choose to repeat. Don’t get me wrong, we appreciated the opportunity, BUT both band and audience feedback suggested it would have been better if it had allowed for at least a couple more songs. 

 

 I’ve had to adjust my own thinking based on personal experiences both in terms of playing and running events. I’ve in the past seen benefits of short set times, but now remain convinced that that 33% difference between a token 20 minutes and a half hour is a great investment in time if you want the best outcomes.

 My own view is that if an event becomes too hyperactive in the amount of performances, the audience never really settles in to listen to the performers. The other extreme is where people lose interest in what’s on stage, BUT in my view any artist that is being paid to play, would be able to manage keeping audience attention for half an hour, even factoring in personal tastes in music. The argument for limiting artist sets to 20 minutes has been that this allows “all killer, no filler” but surely an artist who the public are paying to see, should be able to manage a 30 min set and if they have to pad out the last ten minutes with filler, they may be best advised working on their material?

Excerpt from a recent major newspaper 

During some of my research, I came across an interesting article on this subject that suggests that there is a definate current seed change in thinking from artists on this subject. Here’s an excerpt – 

“Tom Paine, who directs Love Saves The Day in Bristol, and works on Glastonbury, Love International and Simple Things, said artists are already beginning to reject offers. “The pressure is on to have the biggest and best lineups, and to fit as many acts in as possible. With the artists we tend to book, if you offer them a short slot they will just turn it down,” he says.

Some think this more-bands-less-time approach is letting down the crowd. One artist who did not wish to be named says that shorter sets are increasingly unpopular with musicians because they do not let them showcase their work. “You get paid the same, yeah sure, but you just have to play the most simplified version of whatever it is you do. There’s no time for progression and you can’t give a more nuanced performance. In 20 minutes all you have time for is the hits.””

Festivals, the artist added, just book as many acts as possible to sell tickets, then have problems scheduling them all: “It’s a stack ’em high philosophy. Punters would probably rather buy a ticket to a festival where there are five acts that they like rather than to see two acts playing for three times as long. It’s hard to find festivals that will give artists the right setting to perform how they want.”

My own soundings suggest that the main advocates of shorter set times are those promoting the events as it means presenting what looks like a substantial line up in terms of numbers. This of course may be attractive to a certain audience demographic, but my own research suggests that the above article is representative of a majority view. Ultimately of course the proof is in repeated long term attendance by artists and audience who invest time and money in making such events viable, so time will tell which events survive and and are best supported.

Queen at Live Aid, the best ever short set? 

Of course there are pros and cons to any set length and its useful to remind ourselves that even a greatest hits based performance can be spectacular. Queen at Live Aid is perhaps the best example of this.

My friend Dave Bell who was sound engineer for Live Aid pointed out that often the most rehearsed band tend to give the best performance. On the day of the event, Queen rehearsed more than any other act and it showed on the night! For those interested the set was 24.36 minutes. Live Aid was not a festival in the traditional sense, but is an example of how to wow an audience. Of course this is many years ago and the Guardian article quoted earlier many indicate that public opinion has changed towards artists playing a greatest hits format.

The Queen set was a master class in entertainment, but even at one of the most famous gigs ever with a crammed agenda even Queen allocated  over 20 min. Would it have been better if they had cut 20% of the time? Personally I doubt it, but who knows?

 I watched the whole of Live Aid without a break and the Queen set was just magical. 

Regardless of the set time, any performance is in my opinion all about entertainment. My most enjoyable festival experiences include Womad where I saw Jah Wobble and Pinkpop in Holland where I saw Morphine, Crowded House, Rage Against the Machine, Bjork and the Orb all in one day. Each artist played for a minimum of thirty minutes and that to me seems to be the magic figure as a starting point.

 Final Thoughts

My experience of reducing that slot by 33% is that everything is usually a bit rushed and fragmented. I have reviewed my thoughts on this a number of times but I have yet to meet any seasoned professional artists who prefer less than thirty minutes and very few audience members who would insist on less that this time period. 

Set lengths of less than 20 minutes in my view work great with open mic type situations or other environments which are for music enthusiasts as opposed to musicians playing. There’s less pressure for the artist and regardless of how the performance goes, its all over quickly. For some niche festivals this is certainly an option, especially to allow beginners some stage time. Its a tricky balance to avoid becoming like “Britain’s Got Talent” at one end of the spectrum and at the other end becoming too exclusive so newer acts never get a chance to play. I’m currently working on a big project to assist with new and established original artists being able to reach a wider public.

That said, the paying public may vote with their feet if the performance is not to their liking and a bit below par. Of course we are now very much in the area of personal opinion which is by its very nature totally subjective. I’ve been at events where the artists on the smallest stage were in my opinion really superb musicians delivering a great performance, whereas on the main stage the performance was awkward to put it mildly.

Ultimately in my opinion its really about providing great entertainment and everyone will have a view on that. Discussion and debate allow us to constantly strive to improve what is on offer rather than simply repeat previous formats. We can agree to disagree, but discussion is how we learn and evolve. I reconfirm my own preference to a minimum set time of 30 minutes for all the reasons I have outlined. All the polls I have run and all the conversations I have had, overwhelmingly suggest that this is the popular view from both audience members and artists.

The Psychology of Pricing Musical Events

I’m currently doing a fair bit of research about pricing for music events, including festivals, gigs, concerts and other formats. There’s a massive range of pricing and in my view its a very interesting area of discussion. This article offers some thoughts on the matter based on my own observations and conversations with others.

The Difference Between Price v Cost

When we talk about “pricing” one of the first things to consider is “price v cost” These are often thought to be the same thing but they are quite different. The price is what you pay financially. The cost is what you pay in all respects- i.e. time to get to the event, accommodation, food options, everything that is involved in the situation.

The financial price may seem extremely attractive but you may then find other factors mitigate against this being such a good deal. Of course the value of anything is often very subjective. That said, any promoter running an event should IMO we mindful of added value if they want to attract a good number of people and maintain any kind of brand longevity.

Personal Preferences

Over the course of a year I will attend a wide range of musical events across the globe. In 2017 these included an arena gig and a number of small concerts. When I say “small” I mean a capacity of 200 or less. My favorite gigs by far were two concerts in New York at the Vanguard where I saw Bill Frissell. The venue has a total capacity of 125 and its $35 plus paying for one drink for usually a 90 min set. If you arrive early you can literally be a few feet away from the artists. This is one of the best musical experiences anyone can have and there are two sets per night with the venue mostly sold out. Great music lovers appreciate The Vanguard and know that’s its truly a place for music lovers. Similarly I just booked to see The Secret Sisters at a great local folk club and the price is 15 pounds for the evening. I saw Martin Simpson there last November (15 pounds for 2 sets) and it was a brilliant evening, again with a total capacity of 125 attendees.

Another favorite venue of mine is The Beacon Theatre in New York. The capacity is 2894 and I have seen The Allman Brothers there numerous times over the years. These were always sold out events and the playing time was always around three full hours. Back in 1990’s Eric Clapton joined them for the whole 2nd set. This is not an inexpensive night out and I may pay anything form 75 – 140 pounds for the evening, but it was 100% worthwhile as these were world class musicians and of course that window of opportunity has now gone. The Allmans were masters of added value and merchandising. You could get the whole concert you just saw on CD at the end of the show and a huge number of people bought these CDs. The sound was always amazing and they were known for always having a different set each night with surprise guests.

Price is always a filter and remember to add value…

The price for anything is always a filter for people’s purchasing choices. Some people regard 200 pounds as being expensive for a musical instrument. Others would pay thousands and not think twice. Of course affordability is also a factor and the higher the price does not always guarantee satisfaction for the customer. I ran a number of polls online to see what people would pay for a musical evening assuming this was not for an A-list artist or the reformation of Led Zeppelin. The general opinion was that 15 pounds was good value price wise. If you charge more you will still get people, but in my experience the numbers start to drop.

In December last year I was talking to an artist about a local event that was significantly more than 15 pounds for a few hours entertainment. On the night the numbers were pretty small for the size of the venue and it was obvious that even though at the last minute they kept trying to add value with all manner of incentives, most people on first impressions thought it to be too expensive. Few locals attended and many commented that it was far too expensive for their pockets. It was also quite close to Xmas which is traditionally a financial stretch for people. In contrast on Dec 23rd there was an evening of entertainment at a local venue that held 400 people. The event was sold out, food was available, there was a full bar and close to four hours music. What was the ticket price? Fifteen pounds…

Interestingly at the other end of the spectrum is you advertise an event as “free” that suggest to many that its not of any great value as there’s no money required to attend! The “pay as you feel” model is different and this allows affordability for all, but is a big risk for any promoter. However it does put the onus on the entertainers to do a great job and the hosts to provide an excellent environment for the entertainment that IMO should include a full bar, seated accommodation and great varied food options.

Making the numbers balance

If you are a promoter, the “risk v reward” factor can be a tricky balance. In the UK there are lots of niche events described as “festivals” These can vary massively in nature with budgets of anything for 10-50k. If we assume we are looking for a capacity of 400-500 people (this would be in my experience quite common) a venue cost is probably going to be between 5-6k. If the ticket price is 40 pounds (again reasonable for a weekend niche event) then at the lower 5k figure the promoter needs to shift 125 tickets at full price just to pay for venue hire alone without any other costs. Then there’s the cost of paying artists. Local artists may play for a token sum and/or “for exposure” BUT more established artists who travel will demand a fee which could be anything from 300-1000 pounds in my experience. If the artists come from overseas, there are also flight costs and accommodation costs. This means the overall costs seriously start to crank.

Audience Expectations and interesting poll feedback

Music festivals vary massively in nature. I blogged about this previously here

In that article I talk about what makes for a great music festival and those festivals that have stood the test of time. A key factor in achieving that is making the numbers work and meeting and/or preferably exceeding audience expectations. There’s no point in offering an experience that is not what the audience want. Some promoters can be a touch myopic in making commercial choices and this can really come to bite them. Typical mistakes are to choose artists who are personal favorites regardless of commercial appeal. Another mistake is fail to attract sponsors who are invaluable allies in supporting an event financially and through third party recommendations.

When I was doing some research for a colleague about ukulele based niche events, a friend alerted me to some very interesting events from an online poll where people were asked about buying preferences. Some of the most interesting results were as follows. Only 22.8% of those polled would consider a major artist as a reason for attending, compared to 52.9% who would prefer to jam with others. Options to buy stuff attracted 55.5% and meeting friends accounted for 37% of interest. This reconfirms my research that audiences for many niche events don’t really come to hear music, its more a social meet up/purchasing an opportunity. Nothing wrong with that of course, but that’s what attracts paying customers to many (not all) of these niche events.

Time for a New Model?

I have spent a big part of 2017 looking at this issue and 2018 will be more of the same. I’m interested in creating better opportunities for original musicians playing live. My own band “The Small Change Diaries” probably won’t be playing any more ukulele festivals, but rather looking at more music based festivals. To date The Lagoa Guitar Festival, some of the arts festivals, and our own album launch have been clearly the better options to reach appreciative listening audiences for our music.

The Pay as you feel model interests me greatly. Its a bold initiative but it needs to be framed properly and that means a lot of great attention to detail and providing exceptional value for customers. Of course its a risk for promoters but in a world where people are bombarded with choices, its a refreshing new way of thinking. I’m currently working on a big project that ties together many of the themes discussed here. Ultimately the value of anything is what people will actually pay for it of course

 

 

 

Effective artist promotions in the music industry?

I’m currently engaged in doing a lot of research about effective artist promotions and this is resulting in some really interesting feedback. I’m lucky to have access to a number of professional artists who I can talk to about this as well as having the means to gather really good information on how the market is changing.

Its clear to me that with musicians, the actual music itself is only one of many ingredients needed to generate any kind of useful profile. I have seen and heard some fantastic artists who have only ever reached a very small audience. It may be that this is 100% their choice of course. In this fast changing world its important to have a multi layered delivery system to connect with a wider audience. These are my personal opinions and of course everyone will have their own views about what works for them!

Focus on quality and detail – sound and vision

When my band “The Small Change Diaries” were due to record our first album, a now departed member from the first lineup suggested we get a bunch of microphones and do all the recording and mastering ourselves! My background in successfully creating spoken word and ambient music from 2000 – 2006 told me that this was at best optimistic and to be frank, totally delusional. Yes, we might record some tracks, BUT the art of “music production” is about capturing the best sound and then ensuring that the mastering and mixing is to the highest standards. Working with a producer with decades of experience ensures that there is a good chance for this happening.

Of course this route means an investment of time and money, but that’s always going to be needed at some level if you want to produce something of a very high standard. When promoting your music its always a good idea to have the best possible representation of your sound. This  means paying proper attention to the recording process. Fortunately there are all manner of inexpensive options alongside getting an actual producer. Programs like Reaper will do everything you could possibly want in terms of recording.

Just as the sound needs to be of a high quality, the visual element needs also to be really good. I’m amazed at how many artists pay almost no attention to this and forget the old saying “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” Good professional make all the difference, especially when used online. I’m amazed at how poor some photos are on artist websites. With my own band we have always made a point of using great photos and this has really helped promote the band to a wider audience.

Video is also a great example of a medium to connect to a wider audience, BUT my advice is again to ensure its of the best possible quality. In the era of the mobile phone often audience members can enthusiastically film artists. The problem can be that this usually looks and sounds terrible and not create the best impression. One launch party in particular showed a huge venue with a very small group of people. Nothing wrong with that of course, it looked like a fun event, BUT I suspect the promoters would have preferred not to have this aspect highlighted on social media. 

Sony MV1 units or similar units are highly recommended and in my view its better to have a less video of a higher quality rather than a mass of poorly recorded material posted online. The challenge with video recordings is to get both great sound and vision . This is why the MV1’s are so excellent. They do just one job brilliantly. At the time of writing I hear Sony have stopped making these, but Zoom have similar options worth looking at.  

Online presence – social media and web presence

Every festival application for artists I have seen asks for the band’s social media and website details. In my view if you have a few hundred likes on FB, the chances are you are not going to get the same attention as if you have ten times this amount. Whether we like it or not, social media and online presence is crucial for artist promotion. This means a lot of work behind the scenes and keeping everything current.  Often “band news” on sites is out of date and again attention to detail is everything. I blogged in the past about one artist who had an entire page almost begging for financial contributions to “help her art” This again does not send out a very good professional message to the wider world. The internet has been a game changer for musicians, BUT it can result in over saturation if you are not careful and the habit of enthusiastically taking live poor quality video with mobile phones does little to present a great image.

In terms of web presence I highly recommend Steve Krug’s book “Don’t make me think” Its a goldmine of useful information. With my own band we have been invited to a number of overseas opportunities to play, mostly based on our web presence and social media presence. A longtime USA music producer paid us this compliment on seeing our site “You look very established and like you have been around for a very long time. 

Balancing time and money

There’s a saying in show business – “It takes ten years to become an overnight success” This means playing the long game when it comes to promotions. The challenge for most artists is to balance time and money.  Artist promotion requires time and money in order to be effective, Its also essential to know what to do with your time and money. You can have all the time and money in the world and never achieve anything. Good information is invaluable. 60 second music marketing is another invaluable resource for artists.

Take a look at https://www.facebook.com/60secondmusicmarketing for some really invaluable concise practical advice.  Many musicians can be great creatively but lack essential basic business skills. This can result in all kinds of problems including a real downturn in reasonably paid work. The professional musicians I know work really hard to earn a living from their craft. 

Getting played on the radio

BBC Introducing is a great platform for independent artists. When they played over 50% of our first SCD album I fully expected a big jump in public attention. Guess what? It made no difference whatsoever in terms of sales, web traffic and live requests. Similarly I have seen other artists get similar exposure and this factor alone not make a significant difference. My point is that radio play is simply one of many ingredients in effective artist promotion, BUT no single ingredient alone will make the difference. My own experience is that its best to have a coordinated approach across many platforms. This takes time and patience and in this X Factor era where instant fame is the new mantra, many artists don’t have the stamina for this.  

Festival Opportunities? 

The term “festival” describes a multitude of experiences that are so varied that its almost impossible to define the term these days. Most artists I speak to lament the lack of playing opportunities at such events and experiences can vary massively. There are of course many excellent established festivals that have great reputations. There are also many events described as “festivals” that are not such great opportunities for effective artist promotions. The festival application process can at times be quite bewildering and some artists seem desperate to have any playing opportunity even if its for a few minutes and they pay to be there. In short it can be a great deal of work for little gain, so its really work doing your research ahead of time.

My own experience is that “appreciative audiences” vary massively and a lot of the festival organisation can be at times chaotic which is one of the reasons why many events fail to succeed. Niche music festivals may attract a few hundred customers at best and in recent times there is a noticeable downward trend in numbers attending such events. Some of the communication from festival promoters to the wider world of artists may also be well intentioned but in my view often not well thought through. One of many examples of this is the message below 

 

Working with like minds

The “music business” is like any other business and a great deal of success depends on connecting with the right people. When I was in Nashville this year I spent an afternoon with Van Fletcher who is Jake Shimabukuro’s manager. My friend asked him about the relevance of record companies in this day and age and he pointed out that such companies can be invaluable in generating audience reach. Ditto Music is a good resource for getting global digital distribution which is essential for “reach” to a wider audience.

One of my golden rules these days is to work with like minds and people who have shared values. This includes promoters, musicians and create teams. The best relationships are where both parties benefit. Those who know me appreciate that I will happily give my time and energy to help others who do the same. I like straight talking folks who have a point of view, even if its different to my own.

My advice is stay away from people who can’t separate social interactions and business transactions.  I had a conversation recently with a very established artist about this exact same subject and his advice mirrored totally my own thoughts. I am hugely grateful for all those people who had engaged in conversations around this subject. There’s no substitute for personal experience and its clear to me that the music market is changing at some rate. This means paying careful attention to how as an artist you connect to the wider world. 

Final Thoughts

Effective artist promotion requires a great deal of dedication and investments in time and money. In my other life I set up and ran two major business concerns and have realized that the principles in making any project successful are very similar. As artists we are all in a process of learning and of course if you want to get audience attention you need to spot and seize opportunities. In recent times its clear to me that niche musical genres can be a lot of fun, but there is a massive limitation on audience reach and often these musical trends will ebb and flow. Similarly its smart to think about international artist reach and that requires some strategic thinking. 

The UK in particular is in my view going to see some very tough times as the public increasingly have less disposable income. That factor alone will affect artist promotion as well as the whole Brexit situation and how this affects subsequent European artist opportunities. In 2018/2019 I’ll be unveiling a new musical initiative and continue to work with some really great folks who give me hope that its still possible to get great music to a wider public. The OUS platform has done well to date in the first two years. The next project is much more ambitious and more expansive…

New thinking for music promotion?

Throughout 2017 I have been looking at music promotion models and figuring out the best way forward in a changing market. This means talking to a lot of seasoned performers as well as some established promoters and people in the music business. What is increasingly clear is that its definitely a time for new thinking in these tougher economic times. People are increasingly looking for a more complete experience, and hosts and promoters should avoid dismissing this at their peril.  I ran a series of polls to ask people what they looked for when choosing to see a live performance (excluding A list artists) and it produced some very interesting feedback.

The Small Change Diaries launch party was a beta tester for a bigger project. We focused on ensuring that all attendees received excellent value and added value to make it a really memorable evening. We were also keen to reach a wide section of the public and not any niche music enthusiasts. The uke community like to play, but don’t always make for the best appreciative music audiences. With this in mind the evening had a range of seasoned performers who provided a wide range of music. There were deliberately no strum alongs etc so popular with some audiences. This evening was only about creative musical entertainment of the best possible kind with an emphasis on mostly original music.

We released over 200 tickets to the event and had a full house on the night with some additional last-minute attendees. The physical space was a terrific mill and great attention was paid to giving all attendees seated accommodation, inexpensive food for all tastes and a full bar as well as free parking. Everyone received the new “Lullabies for Cynics” CD as well as the original SCD CD on arrival. In short this was a no risk event for the public and the onus was on the artists to provide a great night out. Music started at 8pm and ran until 11.15pm. We ran this as a “pay as you feel” event to ensure it was affordable for all. If an event is 20 – 30 pounds, this makes it a very expensive evening for a family and worse still there’s no food options provided. 

The feedback on the vent was excellent and highlights for me were hearing Phil Doleman and Laurent Zeller playing together for the first time and Jessica Bowie and Astraluna doing harmonies on “Not one of us” which was one of the encores. In 2018 I’ll be looking at a new platform that will showcase events in UK and USA with an emphasis on offering the best possible music from some really excellent artists.

Laurent Zeller

In 2016 my band The Small Change Diaries were invited to play at The Lagoa Guitar Festival in Portugal. This was the first full band outing overseas and it was a wonderful experience for us all.

We were supporting a french trio Les Kostards and met up with the musicians the night before as we were both staying in the same hotel. Little did I know that this would spark a great friendship and some wonderful musical collaborations!

This is when I first met violinist Laurent Zeller. At this time I had not heard Laurent play, but we got on well and both shared an obvious enthusiasm for photography. Our host took both bands on a wonderful tour of Lagoa prior to the gig and were able to see some wonderful scenery.

On the day of the gig I was blown away by his playing. Below is an example of this 

The Les Kostards set at the festival was extraordinary and the guys rocked the house. Prior to the gig we met up to see if we could do a group jam on the night and I am delighted that Laurent agreed. We decided to play “Slow News Day” as an encore and as you can see from the clip below his solo during this track is extraordinary. Fast forward to 3 min to see him in action

The following day I asked him if he would contribute to some tracks for our next album. These tracks included a version of “Birdman” and his wonderful violin part can be heard on the movie short of this track seen below

Laurent then contributed to some additional tracks on “Lullabies for Cynics” “Not one of us” as well as “Draw you out” His playing is just extraordinary and I am delighted that he is going to be joining us for the album launch on November 3rd in Leeds – https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/music-for-the-head-and-heart-tickets-37057548124

He is also featured on my next solo project and we will be recording more tracks in two week’s time in our Leeds studio.

Instruments investments and joyous purchases

Over the years I have become a genuine instrument collector and have spent many hours chatting to my good friend Martin Simpson about the joys of purchasing and playing great instruments. Many people will know me for my love of different types of ukuleles, but I have a really diverse collection of many stringed instruments, not just ukes.

I’m lucky in my other work to be able to travel around the world and Japan and the USA are wonderful places for seeking out new creative tools. My favorite stores across the globe include Ukulele Mania in Tokyo, The Ohana store outside Osaka, Poe Poe in Tokyo, Matt Umanov Guitars in NYC, Mandolin Brothers in NYC (no longer in existence) , Hill Country Guitars in Austin and Carters Guitars in Nashville. All these stores have a fantastic range of instruments and great customer service.

I also have a number of instruments that can’t be bought through retail stores including guitars and a mandola by Stefan Sobell. The Sobells came as recommendations from Martin Simpson and there’s usually a two year wait for these instruments. Similarly Takahiro Shimos instruments are also custom builds and of the highest quality and there’s a waiting list for them. In terms of instrument brands I’m a big fan of Collings and when I met Bill before he passed I mentioned that I had never played a Collings that was not excellent. The recent Waterloo guitars are more examples of the highest standards in building and an absolute joy to play.

I’m a big fan of instruments where the main focus is in using the best woods and the investment is in the woods rather than ornate decoration. I recently saw a ukulele advertised for thousands of pounds where the store commented that huge amounts of time had been spent on the inlay, so it looked really nice but I prefer a more simple well constructed instrument. Every instrument will spark different creative ideas and the best ones are always those that I may pick up in a store and find I’m still playing 30 – 40 minutes later. There are thousands of “ok” instruments, but few which really are keepers. 

In terms of electric guitars I have some great instruments including two Parkers, a George Benson Ibanez, some custom Ransom strats and Telecasters from San Francisco and some Warmoth guitars as well as a brilliant Collings I35 Deluxe. This is a growing family that continue to provide countless hours of musical joy as well as being great investments. I always advise people to try out instruments for themselves rather than rely on online advice as production models which in theory should be the same often vary wildly. There are no “best instruments” only different ones. If you want to create great music, its a lot easier if you are playing an instrument you truly love.

shimo ukulele shimo ukulele

 

A short polite rant on audience etiquette…

I have been going to musical performances for 45 years and remain amazed at the differences in audiences. Perhaps I am in a minority, but when I go to a musical performance, I am there to hear the music and watch the artists. 

For me the best audiences are those who come to pay attention to the performers with respectful attention to their craft. More than ever I carefully choose who I go to see and avoid some venues where I know its probably not going to be a great experience for me. These days I prefer smaller venues like The Vanguard in New York which has a 125 capacity. True jazz fans know that if you get to The Vanguard for 7 pm, with the doors opening at 7.30 pm you are guaranteed being in the first two rows in the venue. There is a strict policy of no phones or recording during the set. This makes for a terrific music experience that is respectful of the performers. Its no surprise that The Vanguard has hosted the best jazz musicians for decades. This etiquette is unusual and if I had my way (which I admit I won’t) I’d extend this way of working to all live creative performances.

In stark contrast to such small gigs there are arena experiences. Of course many major artists will view these as better commercial opportunities, BUT often the audience experience is horrendous. Many attendees seen incapable of sitting still for a 90 min gig without either texting, talking and/or endlessly going to the bar. God only knows whey they buy what are often expensive tickets. The sound is also often not great as its a bit like being in an aircraft hanger with aircraft hanger acoustics. Equally bad are open air concerts where sound can also be an issue. I tend to avoid these as its in my view not the best listening experience. That said I did see The Rolling Stones play Manchester arena and they were terrific, but of course the lads have had a few decades to perfect their craft.

With some niche music genres (like the ukulele world), many attending are not that interested in watching and listening to seasoned performers, they just want to strum with friends! I get the enjoyment of social meet ups but remain totally mystified as to why anyone would pay for a festival weekend ticket plus accommodation and then avoid seeing professional performers. I’m even more mystified as these sets are often very brief so its not even a big time commitment, but that’s a personal view. One of the reason why you probably won’t see my band play any more uke festivals is that the focus is not really on the music, so its not to my personal taste. Yes a “Chas and Dave” style sing along may be great for many folks, but for me personally its like the eighth level of hell!

 In “How Music Works” David Byrne talks about different acoustic spaces for different types of music and this book is an essential read for any creative artist. I fully admit that I’m in a minority in terms of personal musical taste and have a definite preference for hearing original music. The audience is of  course an essential part of the whole musical experience.  I have learned that you never quite know what to expect. My band The Small Change Diaries recently played a gig where I introduced on of our tracks “Adam Blames Eve” as “a song of biblical proportions” and three elderly attendees ran for the door! Whats clear t me is that as a performer its best to adopt “an Ernest Shackelton approach” who famously commented

“By endurance, we conquer”

Its a privilege to play music to any audience and I am mindful that playing only original music is not a safe bet as it challenges audience expectations. That said personally I love this aspect of musical exploration and wouldn’t have it any other way 

 

USA Travels and Stories

I just returned from an amazing USA set of travels from Austin, Nashville and New York. These are three very different, but equally amazing cities. It also gave me and my wife a great chance to meet up with great friends and to see a whole world of great music. This was the first time I’ve seen Nashville and I can understand why Nashville is so renowned for music. The sheer concentration of musicians and the quality of the performance is quite amazing.

In Austin I picked up an amazing Waterloo guitar made by Collings Guitars. I had no intention of buying an acoustic, but this is one of the very best I have ever seen. Its already sparked some interesting comments. On the flight from Austin to Nashville one stewardess commented

“This guys got a HUGE guitar”

On the trip from NYC to UK for some reason I can’t fathom, I was called from the back of the line to board first on the plane. Maybe I was mistaken for a famous country star, I don’t know. Either way, this Waterloo seems to provoke all manner of curious interactions.

In NYC we saw Barry Harris at The Vanguard for a quite extraordinary gig. We also met up with an old friend and author of “Portrait of a Phantom” Zeke Schein. Zeke sold me my first uke and has become a great friend. He introduced me to the first ever 3D printed ukulele, which you see in this photo. His book is quite brilliant and highly recommended. This world is better for such amazing folks.